Dear Mr. Football: What does Southern Utah get out of playing Pac-12 schools on consecutive weekends?
A: The Thunderbirds, proud Big Sky Conference champions of 2015 and 2017, will be paid $500,000 for playing at Arizona Stadium Saturday. A week ago, they were paid a similar $500,000 for losing 48-25 at Oregon State.
While few outside of Cedar City, Utah, were paying attention, Southern Utah ditched the small-scale Great West Conference in 2012 and joined the Big Sky.
In attempt to strengthen their bottom line, the Thunderbirds began playing Pac-12 teams that year. How’s it going?
Southern Utah is 0-5 against the Pac-12 and has lost by an average score of 49-17, getting out-gained per game 554 to 321 yards. It lost 77-21 at Oregon, 50-31 at Cal and last week, at OSU, allowed true freshman running back Jermar Jefferson to rush for 238 yards.
Dear Mr. Football: Why not just one sacrificial game against the Pac-12? Why two this season?
A: New SUU athletic director Debbie Corum would rather play just one "money game," at about $1 million per year. She’s working on it. There’s a long line to get on the schedule of the $1 million opponents such as Alabama, Michigan and Georgia.
Corum was viewed as a coup of a hire by Southern Utah; for five years she was the Senior Women’s Athletic administrator at UConn, a women’s basketball bigshot at the NCAA’s biggest women’s basketball school. Before that, she was on the administrative staff of the Southeastern Conference, LSU and at Stanford.
So now the Thunderbirds are thinking bigger than ever before; they will play two games at Utah and another at Arizona State in the near future, but Saturday’s game in Tucson is the only UA-SUU game scheduled.
Dear Mr. Football: Does Southern Utah head coach Demario Warren get paid like a Big Sky championship coach?
A: His new five-year deal is worth roughly $185,000 a season. That would make him the lowest paid of all 10 Arizona assistant coaches. And it’s not fully competitive in the Big Sky. Idaho coach Paul Petrino is being paid $446,000 this season.
But it takes time for a FCS school like Southern Utah to built a bank account. A year ago, the Big Sky champs averaged just 9,538 in home attendance, which is basically a sellout-season at Eccles Coliseum in Cedar City.
Dear Mr. Football: Is Arizona the most emotionless team in college football?
A: During last week’s humbling blowout loss at Houston, I noticed one moment of fire on the UA sideline. Special teams coach Jeremy Springer threw his clipboard to the turf when kicker Lucas Havrisik missed an extra-point attempt in the fourth quarter.
It wasn’t a Rich Rodriguez-type tantrum, thank goodness, but it did show that not all of Arizona’s coaches/players have been embalmed for two weeks.
The last time Arizona opened a football season 0-3 was 1969. Arizona lost at Iowa 31-19. UA tight end Ted Sherwood — who caught six passes and scored a touchdown for the Wildcats in a "homecoming" near his home town of Burlington, Iowa — told the Star the Wildcats weren’t properly prepared that day.
"This is the Big Ten," he said. "They hit hard. Nobody hits harder than the Big Ten."
Last week, Sherwood sent me an email discussing the UA’s losses to BYU and Houston, in which he said, in part, "Arizona plays in a Big Boy conference, the Pac-12, and everyone, including the coaching staff, needs to prepare and play like we are Big Boys."
Dear Mr. Football: Who is the best player in SUU football history?
A: Ever heard of Matt Cannon? The Thunderbirds retired his jersey, No. 9, a few years ago and it’s hard to believe that someone from Hollywood wasn’t there to acquire the movie rights to Mr. Cannon’s story.
The slotback/quarterback/punter from Salt Lake City rushed for 5,589 yards in his SUU career. How good is that? Arizona’s career leader, Ka’Deem Carey, gained 4,239.
Cannon set four FCS career records, 10 SUU career records, was the Valedictorian of the Class of 2001, graduated with a 4.0 GPA, earned a Law degree at BYU, was the MVP of the European football championship game in Germany, was awarded an NCAA Post-Graduate scholarship, and now works for a Salt Lake City law firm. In 2013, he accepted an offer to be on the SUU Board of Trustees.
And before all of that, he served a two-year mission for the Mormon church.
Dear Mr. Football: Is Southern Utah considered the "Cradle of Coaches" in the West?
A: Consider this: Tucson’s Rich Ellerson, who in my opinion was one of the three or four leading defensive coordinators in Pac-10/12 history while at Arizona, was Southern Utah’s head coach in the 1990s. Wisconsin/Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen was head coach at Southern Utah 15 years ago. BYU head coach Kilane Sitake was on SUU’s staff in 2003 and 2004.
And BYU assistant head coach Ed Lamb, who designed a defensive package that stopped Arizona’s Khalil Tate in his tracks two weeks ago, was the head coach at SUU from 2008-15.
The rising coaching name on SUU’s staff is offensive coordinator Justin Walterscheid, son of former SUU and Chicago Bears starting safety Len Walterscheid. Justin Walterscheid got his chance to run the Thunderbirds’ offense when Gary Crowton, former head coach at BYU, and offensive coordinator at Oregon, LSU and the Chicago Bears, resigned in 2015. Walterscheid, who also coached at Utah and played for the Arizona Rattlers, has thrived. Once on board, SUU has won two Big Sky titles in three seasons.
Dear Mr. Football: Did Arizona’s off-season training camps prepare Khalil Tate properly?
A: He was probably overflowing with X’s and O’s after absorbing Kevin Sumlin’s playbook and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s system.
Pac-12 teams don’t take it easy in the off-season, and Arizona is no different.
Cal coach Justin Wilcox, for example, told Bay Area reporters he executed a pre-season plan that called for1,068 live repetitions for the top players in spring practice and another 1,085 live reps in August training camp.
That’s surely close to what all Pac-12 teams do.
Not all of Cal’s 2,153 reps came in full-contact situations. Wilcox said many were performed at what’s called thud-tempo: no wrapping up, nobody going to the ground.
On Monday, Sumlin similarly said that he does not allow his QBs to be tackled in any practice at any time.
That’s why Tate’s first two games of 2018 have been so puzzling. He’s a smart young man, a good student, with a history of football excellence and comprehension.
The UA is likely to rout Southern Utah even if it plays vanilla, Tate doesn’t turn upfield or rush for 100 yards. The margin of victory won’t matter as much as Tate showing he’s healthy and ready to roll next week at Oregon State.
Arizona 47, Southern Utah 23